Although Alsace claims that its Rieslings are dry the discussion about Alsatian wines often involves residual sugar. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
As with most things in life one must be an earnest seeker in order to find and appreciate diversity in wine. A little effort may be necessary as one will not find much variation in mass produced wines, in particular those with more or less funny names (usually less) and price tags so low that it makes one wonder how the wine was produced. It will, however, be undoubtedly rewarding to ignore the cute critter labels for a moment and search for those wines that lead a quiet and often dusted shelf life somewhere in the back of your local wine store—the wines that deviate from the norm, the ones that make fermented grape juice such a fascinating drink. A wine region that offers plenty of diversity is France's most easterly region Alsace.
It has become increasingly difficult to find Alsatian wines in New York City's wine stores. Five years ago it was relatively easy to source the wines of Deiss, Kreydenweiss, Josmeyer or Ostertag. These days the range of wines from Alsace in many wine stores is rather pitiful, concentrating in most cases on a couple of entrance-level wines from the same two or three producers. Retailers are obviously playing it safe with Alsace. One of the reasons might be the confusion that Alsatian wines have been causing amongst consumers - for decades Alsace has marketed itself as a source for food-friendly wines stressing in particular their dryness. At some point during the 80s it might have been true to say that "German Riesling is sweet while Alsatian Riesling is dry". But things have changed on both sides of the Rhine. While Germany is producing more and more dry Riesling some residual sugar has crept into those from Alsace. Which in itself is not a bad thing. Many people drink sweeter than they are willing to admit.
But how do we know if the Alsatian Riesling we bought is dry or sweet? Currently, we don't. We could check the alcohol level and if the wine has more than say 12.5% then there is a good chance that it is dry. But we don't know for sure. Alsace does not have the ripeness predicates like German wines do: a Spätlese is going to be sweet, unless it specifically says Spätlese trocken. But there is no indication of seetness on Alsatian labels. This unpredictability has probably contributed to the region's scarcity on US wine shelves.
Should winemakers in Alsace ferment all of their wines to complete dryness in order to meet consumers' expectations? Many growers in Alsace farm their vineyards biodynamically, which means that only indigenous yeasts are used in the winemaking process. Yeasts are capricious beasts. If they decide to stop fermentation while there is still some sugar left in the wine then this is what it is. We want wines to be as natural as possible and if nature says off-dry I am happy to accept that. Sweetness can be a natural character of a riper vintage (unless it is chaptalized, which is not so natural). It would be a shame to erase one of the essentials of wine—vintage variation—by forcing all wines to dryness against their own will. Recently, at the seminar "Alsace: The Advanced Experience" organized by Wines of Alsace, Thierry Fritsch, the enologist for the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d'Alsace (CIVA), said that "the problem is not the sugar, the problem is the lack of information". I agree wholeheatedly.
Residual sugar can balance an otherwise harsh wine and together with Riesling's high acidity levels can create an additional dimension in wine that dry wines can't offer: a wonderful and utterly unique tension between sweetness and tartness. The consumer simply needs to know what to expect. While the taste profile of the International Riesling Foundation provides clarity in regard to sweetness in wines Alsace decided to introduce its own sweetness scale on labels and I hope that there will be a concerted effort amongst the region's producers to attach that simple but extremely useful piece of information to their labels.
Depending on the point of view the confusion amongst consumers could also be seen as a blessing as it is the result of Alsace's strongest asset: the diversity of its wines. Alsace is a heaven for white wine drinkers—80% of the region's production is white—and offers an astounding array of personalities amongst its varietals made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. There is no typical style of Riesling in Alsace. It can be bone-dry and mineral, light and flowery or decidedly fruity with substantial weight—and perhaps some residual sugar. Unpredictable, so to speak, and very food-friendly. As much as the wines are in need of some additional labeling it is difficult to label the region itself.
Alsace's recent history has been turbulent. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was passed back and forth between France and Germany no less than four times. Varietal labeling can certainly be attributed to the German heritage and, mon dieu!, the Alsatians' stubbornness to stick with it despite the fact that hardly any other region in France does that certainly makes them very French. But more important than its recent history are the changes that happened roughly 50 million years ago, when a massive mountain range collapsed and the Rhine valley between what is now France's Vosges mountains and Germany's Black Forest was formed. Thus the foundation for Alsace's soil diversity was laid down: gneiss, sandstone, granite, schist, volcanic sediments, clay, marl and limestone. A patchwork of soil types into which the vines are deeply rooted.
Thierry Fritsch pointed out that white wines in Alsace rarely undergo malolactic fermentation—a naturally occurring conversion of tart malic acids into softer lactic acids—in order to preserve freshness. This, he said, is necessary considering that the regional cuisine can be quite heavy (think choucroute). It is equally important for expressing the purity of the terroir as malolactic fermentation can change the character of a wine. The wines are usually vinified and stored in big oval casks, which can be more than a hundred years old. Their inside is lined with a glass-like layer of tartrates, which builds up over time and prevents the wood from imparting any oak flavors to the wine. Avoiding le malo and using neutral, inert fermentation containers both help to push the vineyard's influence to the forefront. A study conducted by an agricultural research center in Germany found that wines made from sites with similar soils but located far apart had more in common than wines made from different soil types located closer together. Even if the exact influence of soil types on wine is still somewhat nebulous there seems to be no doubt that the many different soils of Alsace contribute to the diversity of its wines. Jean-Michel Deiss of the Domaine Marcel Deiss says that the vineyard is even more important than the grape variety itself. The diversity of Alsatian wines are a much higher asset than simply being dry.
Sweetness is not a fault, not even in a Riesling from Alsace. It is part of the region's heterogeneity and should be embraced and emphasized rather than publicly denounced. All that is needed is a label on the back that tells consumers how sweet or dry the wine is going to be. Consumers can decide for themselves but that presupposes that they can find Alsatian wines in the first place. Alsace surely has a lot to offer, but if only a handful of inexpensive estate-bottlings make it on the shelves in wine stores then the idea of terroir is difficult to communicate to consumers and the truly great wines of Alsace will remain wines of fable for most of us.